The High Fidelity Challenge

Students no longer care about using high quality information.

Students are all too willing to satisfice for whatever content they can find along the path of least resistance.

Students are too dependent on search tools that facilitate their use of low quality sources.

These are common concerns we academic librarians have about our undergraduates. We lament that they’ve abandoned high quality library-supported resources for those that are easy to find and use but which offer lower quality content. As we’ve been told,convenience trumps quality, and our students often prove it’s true. Turns out that we are far from the only ones combatting this problem. I discovered a similar situation unfolding in an unexpected place, the hi-fidelity music industry. What’s happened is that the new generation is content to listen to music on mp3 players, but mp3s have the worst sound quality of any audio medium (e.g., CDs,DVDs,vinyl). Why is a new generation choosing to listen to poor quality music instead of opting for readily available alternate formats that offer superior quality?

In the literature of user experience, high fidelity refers to more than the quality of music. It refers to the practice of offering products or services that are high quality in nature, but which typically come with higher costs or less convenience. So why would anyone prefer high fidelity? It’s simple. Those who are passionate – or at least care – about quality tend to choose high over low fidelity. That explains the success of Starbucks in a world where cheap coffee is abundant. More academic libraries are exploring the creation of a great library experience. Some have added a new position with dedicated responsibility for the oversight of an improved user experience. There is no one user experience for academic libraries, but it’s likely we’d aim for an information seeking experience defined by “high fidelity”.

According to a New York Times article about the decline of interest in listening to music on high fidelity devices:

From 2000 to 2009, Americans reduced their overall spending on home stereo components by more than a third, to roughly $960 million, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group. Spending on portable digital devices during that same period increased more than fiftyfold, to $5.4 billion. “People used to sit and listen to music,” Mr. Fremer said, but the increased portability has altered the way people experience recorded music. “It was an activity. It is no longer consumed as an event that you pay attention to.” Instead, music is often carried from place to place, played in the background while the consumer does something else — exercising, commuting or cooking dinner.

No one in the industry is quite sure how to change the way people listen to music or understands what would encourage them to move back to high fidelity music – in the way that appreciating music played on high quality devices was prominent in the 1950s. If anything, new research suggests that over time the younger generation is just adapting to lower quality sound. According to the article, Jonathan Berger, a professor of music at Stanford, said he had conducted an informal study among his students and found that, over the roughly seven years of the study, an increasing number of them preferred the sound of files with less data over the high-fidelity recordings.

Is there a parallel phenomena in our undergraduates? Have they become so accustomed to retrieving an avalanche of information for just about any search they perform that they’ve lost the ability of past generations to distinguish between high and low fidelity? It’s a good question and perhaps one we need to explore further through research. But for now perhaps our best strategy is to follow the path of those who offer high fidelity experiences. They know they they can’t reach everyone. They know the majority will be satisfied with low fidelity. But they also know a minority of individuals, those with a passion for more, will continue to seek out a quality experience. It’s the minority that’s keeping them in business.

Discovery engines like Summon and EBSCO Discovery Service may be the modern equivalent of a low fidelity search system, like mp3 players that have lousy sound quality – but the vast majority pay it no mind. They at least are a step above web search engines so we can feel better about them and tell ourselves they make a difference (e.g., something is better than nothing), and that there is indeed a possibility they will lead a student to discover a resource about which he or she previously knew nothing. And what about the high fidelity resources and services we offer? We need to recognize the undergraduates and graduates who are passionate about research, and concentrate our efforts on introducing them to and helping them develop their passion for high fidelity. Just as there will always be music aficionados who appreciate better sound, we’ll have members of our community who appreciate better resources. Let’s not forget that we have something of value to offer them.

Welcome To The Age Of New Frugality

You can feel it. We’re going through a cultural shift. Thank the economic meltdown. I’ve noticed a number of writers pointing to a trend that could impact academic librarians, but will more likely make its presence felt in the public library sector. Still, it’s a trend to which we should pay attention, and perhaps there may be ways academic libraries can make their own contribution. Call it the Age of New Frugality. An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer points to a behavior shift in which Americans “are showing an enthusiasm for thriftiness not seen in decades.” In the Age of New Frugality people won’t be just spending less, they’ll be looking to make every dollar stretch as far as it can. Think clipping coupons, staycations and combining errands to save gas.

Harvard B-School professor John Quelch has another word to describe the changing consumer. He calls them Simplifiers. A Simplifier is, quite simply, a consumer who is shifting away from the accumulation of stuff and towards the acquisition of experiences. He writes that

“The economic boom of the 1990s fueled consumption and democratized access to a wider than ever spectrum of goods transforming former luxuries into “must-have” necessities…[now] they want to collect experiences, not possessions. And they give experiences rather than goods as gifts to friends and relatives. Experiences may seem ephemeral. They cannot be inventoried except in the form of “Kodak” moments; but they do not tie you down, require no maintenance, and permit variety-seeking instincts to be quickly satisfied.”

That’s a huge change. People want to simplify. Accumulating stuff is now not so attractive or important. Having a good experience, not acquiring a material object, creates meaning.

Other signs of the Age of New Frugality are already being evidenced by the increased use of public libraries. Instead of buying and collecting DVDs or books, more people are recognizing the savings in borrowing them from the local library. And in the academic sector there are numerous reports detailing the increase in online enrollments because students save gas money that way, and the larger enrollments at community colleges because their lower tuition is far more economical. Why pay more for a traditional face-to-face learning experience at a name-brand institution? Of course, there seems to be no tremendous decrease in the number of students applying to the nation’s most costly institutions. But for the majority of Americans finding ways to save money is the essence of the Age of New Frugality.

It’s great that higher education offers options that can help people get through these tough economic times with job retraining for some, a haven from a difficult job market for others, and access to free learning for everyone. But what if we could do more than that? What if we could capitalize on the shift from people investing in stuff to investing in experiences? The signposts suggest that in economic hard times what people value more than stuff is adding some intrinsic meaning to their lives; the latter is certainly more affordable. I think that creates an opportunity for librarians. To be sure, in the 21st century libraries are largely about technology. But where we excel is in bringing the human touch to high tech. Academic librarians deliver meaning by helping students and faculty to be more productive and academically successful. Being helped by a librarian is an experience – hopefully a good one. I was giving a talk about this idea of designing user experiences in academic libraries to the library staff at a large university. The concept is one that takes some time and thought to process. But one librarian spoke up and shared her experiences helping students with their research projects. In almost every case she found those students came back to her each time they had a new research project. I thought that was a great example of delivering meaning to students. I said “You are the library experience”.

It looks like we are just entering the Age of New Frugality. It’s likely to last a while – at least longer than we’d like. Let’s keep in mind that some of our students may be struggling to make ends meet while they try to come up with their tuition money, if they are able to find a lender. I can well imagine many are in need of a good experience, something to remember and something to which they can look forward. If we think about it, and give some thought to designing it, academic librarians can offer a great user experience. Our communities may need it now more than ever.

And speaking of the new frugality, our parent institutions are entering unknown economic territory, and if your library isn’t already feeling it, it probably will be soon. More on the grim outlook for higher education in a future post.